In a world flattened by technology, how can a business hope to stand out?

As it happens, the competitive advantage organizations need to succeed is already within their grasp. And the same technologies that are infusing so much of our economy -- social technology, the Web, mobile gadgets -- are the ones that will craft this crucial opportunity.

Those technologies are built on social data in the age of the empowered consumer, where individuals armed with search engines, "like" buttons and friends’ updates have wrested control of the brand and the buying experience away from companies. Social data that people choose to share has upended business as usual and is exactly the data that will help companies stand out and thrive.

People freely share data every day, data that will let a company know and serve them for the individuals they are. The data broadcasts the customer’s interests, networks and connections, en masse. And it can help companies develop services that anticipate customers’ needs before they change, instead of after the fact.

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Still, the massive volume and unrelenting nature of social data can be overwhelming. How do companies make sense of it? How do they target the right message at the right time to the right person? For leading-edge organizations, the answer is social business analytics. Companies are rolling out collaborative internal networks, committing to listening campaigns, or weaving social data throughout their organizations so they can target the right audiences, build the right promotions, and personalize content.

The payoff is clear. According to a joint study by MIT Sloan Management Review and IBM Institute of Business Value, organizations that excel in analytics often outperform those who are just beginning to adopt analytics by a factor of three to one. And top performers are 5.4 times more likely to use an analytic approach over intuition and gut instinct when making decisions.

Consider how a couple of innovative organizations are crafting a competitive advantage from using data and social analytics to cater to individuals en masse:

The United States Tennis Association pairs the big data collected in real time at the U.S. Open, including serves, volleys, and points, with social media data, analytics, and apps for mobile gadgets.  They connect fans to what is happening on the courts and with each other on social networks.

To understand better what customers think of its products and offers, LabelSneak, a UK online retailer of men’s apparel, focused on pulling out insights from social media, including tweets, photo uploads and conversations between consumers on social media and mobile gadgets, increasing their revenue by 148%.

Business comes down to people doing business with people. Social data gives organizations the insights they need to understand individuals like never before. And that’s a competitive advantage that can’t be beat -- even in a world flattened by technology.